Ask a helicopter pilot

06 March 2017

Mike Buckley
North Sea pilot
As part of our ‘Ask a pilot’ blog series we take a look at some of the most common questions asked of helicopter pilots and put them to one of BALPA's most experienced reps, Mike Buckley.  

How did you end up as a helicopter pilot?

By choice, in the end! After qualifying as an Army pilot, I took my civilian exams as my resettlement course and gained my CPL(H) in 1987. The company I joined didn’t put its ‘new’ pilots in for the IR until they had been with the company for a year, so I gained my IR and ATPL(H) in 1988. 

What kind of licence do you need to fly a helicopter?

Helicopter licences are much the same as fixed wing ones, with the addition of the suffix (H). The ground subjects required are almost the same, (with the addition of rotary specific subjects), as the CPL(A) exams. However, to obtain an ATPL(H) licence, there are no further exams, just a total hours requirement and a full instrument rating.

What is it that attracted you to helicopter flying as opposed to aeroplane?

I suppose it all came down to opportunity. Although the Army does have some fixed wing pilots, they all start out as helicopter pilots first. Once you have experienced rotary flying, fixed wing can seem tame! The sheer variety of aerial work helicopters can do means there is little chance of getting bored, providing one is prepared to take the chance.

What is your favourite type of helicopter to fly?

I was very fortunate to fly seven different types, all of which I enjoyed. For pure handling qualities, my favourite would be the Bolkow Bo105, which I flew both offshore and with North West Air Ambulance. However, my overall favourite would have to be the EC225, despite its current difficulties. The autopilot upper mode functions and its capabilities made it a joy to fly during my final seven years before retirement.

What are usually the biggest challenges for a helicopter pilot?

The first major challenge is learning to hover! Having to co-ordinate both hands and feet through the three controls takes a little getting used to. Every time the collective is moved, the torque will yaw the nose of the helicopter, which requires almost instant response from the yaw pedals to counter the changes in heading. Once the pilot has attained a stable hover, the take-off and landing present the next challenges, but as always, practice makes perfect. After qualifying, the major challenges will depend on the working environment: SAR, air ambulance, offshore, underslung load lifting all present their own particular hurdles and challenges. 

How do you control a helicopter?

Very much like a fixed wing aircraft with the addition of what is called ‘the collective lever’.  Helicopters are controlled in the same three axes as fixed wing: pitch, roll and yaw. The ‘cyclic stick’ is the equivalent to an aeroplane’s control column/yoke and provides the pilot with pitch and roll control. The foot pedals allow the helicopter pilot to yaw the aircraft but also provides an anti-torque control as well. The additional control, the collective, allows the pitch of the rotor blades to be adjusted, providing variations in the lift generated by the rotating blades, basically changing the angle of attack of the aerofoil shaped rotor blades. It mirrors the action of the throttles in a fixed wing, allowing the pilot to increase the power when required. When the collective is raised, the lift is increased and the helicopter will lift off vertically, but the increased torque generated has to be countered by use of the pedals, which change the pitch of the tail rotor blades, providing an anti-torque force to keep the helicopter’s heading controlled. The helicopter transitions into forward flight when the pilot eases the cyclic forward, raising the collective up slightly to increase the power, until the pilot can ‘pitch’ the nose up, using the cyclic, and start to climb away.

What is ‘auto rotation’?

During powered flight, the rotor disc draws air through from above to provide the lift and thrust needed for flight. Should the engines fail, the pilot must lower the collective lever immediately, putting the blades into flat pitch, otherwise the rotor disc will slow down very quickly. This is the autorotational state. The idea is to keep the disc rotating, within set parameters, to maintain the inertia. As the helicopter descends, the airflow is reversed, going up through the disc, with the air driving the disc, much like a wind turbine. In fact, without accurate control, the rotor disc will speed up very quickly, which can be disastrous. The pilot will then use all that stored inertia to cushion the landing.   

What happens in the unlikely event of an engine failure? 

It all depends at what stage of flight the engine fails. There are four quite distinct phases of flight for helicopters: hover, take-off, cruise and landing. The actions to be carried out depend on the number of engines the helicopter has. Single engine helicopters, much like single engine aeroplanes, only have one option – land. If the engine fails during the hover, the pilot can only cushion the landing by raising the collective. During take-off, the pilot will reject and land ahead. A twin engine helicopter losing an engine in the hover will normally just land ahead and if during the take-off phase, the pilot will have one of two options – with plenty of runway ahead, a reject with a running landing would be the normal action: or continue the take-off on one engine. Just like the fixed wing, the decision basically depends on the airspeed at which the failure occurs. An engine failure in the cruise is handled much the same as in an aeroplane, without the asymmetric problems, as the rotor will be powered through the gearbox as normal. A failure on approach in a single will mean an autorotation and a forced landing. For a twin, the approach would continue and be completed with a single engine landing, with possibly a running landing if heavy.

Are helicopters more restricted by weather?

Yes and no! Strong winds may prevent the helicopter even starting up, as the rotor blades are susceptible to ‘sailing’ and the possibility of striking the fuselage. As a result, all helicopters have a maximum wind speed limit for starting. During flight, the main problem is the reduction in groundspeed if flying into wind. Just like an aeroplane, helicopters are affected by crosswinds, especially on the approach, but they have the distinct advantage of being able to yaw into wind before touchdown. Other than the wind, helicopters are restricted by the same weather conditions as fixed wing aircraft – fog, ice and snow all cause the same problems, with icing perhaps slightly more of an issue.

What is your favourite helicopter landing point?

Difficult one to answer, really, but a pilot’s home base would probably be the most common! A better question would be what are the most interesting landing points. As a helicopter can land almost anywhere, most pilots will have some very interesting and intriguing places. Personally, my first landing on a moving ship offshore was interesting! Also landing in confined sites when I was flying for an air ambulance operation: on a narrow canal towpath, small clearings in wooded or built-up areas, on the side of a hill high in the Pennines. I also managed a few landings on the top of lighthouses!
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